Fresh Out of Dope

409692229_e75d124f7c_t

This review of Tony O’Neill‘s Down and Out on Murder Mile appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 21 November 2008 (No 5512, p. 20):

Fresh Out of Dope

While suffering from withdrawal symptoms, a drug addict hits herself around the face with a book. Tony O’Neill does not tell us the title, but a copy of his new novel — in which this harrowing scene appears — would be appropriate. Down and Out on Murder Mile is the sequel to Digging the Vein (2006), the novel which established its young author as a figurehead of the “Offbeat” literary movement, alongside the more experimental Tom McCarthy. Unlike McCarthy, whose novels subvert the idea of authenticity, O’Neill belongs to the authentic school of writing as exemplified by Charles Bukowski and John Fante. To his admirers, he is a combination of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady (or André Breton and Jacques Vaché), a resolution in himself of the art/life dichotomy.

Although Down and Out on Murder Mile is subtitled “A novel” and described by its publisher as “semi-autobiographical fiction”, O’Neill makes no bones about how closely it is based on his own history so that one wonders what, if anything, is fictitious about it. In the acknowledgements, for instance, he thanks his “wife and muse” — whose name in fiction, as in fact, is Vanessa — because she does not object to his “airing [their] dirty laundry in public”. The first-person narrator remains anonymous throughout, making him indistinguishable from the author, and the systematic use of the past tense (except for dialogue) reinforces the biographical feel.

Far from being a simple memoir, however, Down and Out on Murder Mile is a deceptively literary work, one which chronicles its own genesis. When the protagonist describes the mental games he once played to provide himself with “a perfect excuse for a little hit”, he takes a dig at the glamorization of junkie writers: “Did William Burroughs sit around, worrying about taking dope? Or did he just do it and then write immortal books?”. At times, heroin stands for the magic potion found in the traditional love story; at others, it brings about the obligatory mating of Eros and Thanatos: the “unspoken agreement” that the junkie couple will “eventually die together”. The fairy-tale qualities of the narrator’s romance with Vanessa are striking, especially in the squalid circumstances in which it takes place. Contact is first made when he drunkenly speed-dials a number at random on someone else’s mobile phone. Vanessa falls for him when he is at his “lowest ebb”, his “worst point”, his “most destroyed, destitute and bankrupted”, and she sees through all that as if he were a prince in disguise. The fatal attraction of dope is depicted in the novel as the result of a childlike rejection of compromise and mediocrity: “I start to realize that the war on drugs is a war on beauty — a war on perfection, because everything is perfect on heroin”. Addiction is thus an attempt to give permanence to the “lightning crack of divinity” glimpsed at when shooting up. Epiphanies like these are better served by writing than by heroin; and this is the concealed theme of a novel ostensibly concerned with the day-to-day survival of an addict.

The opening sentence hits an almost comically low note: “The first time I met Susan she overdosed on a combination of Valium and Ecstasy at a friend’s birthday party at a Motel 6 on Hollywood Boulevard”. The two soon get married and live unhappily ever after until they relocate to Murder Mile in East London, where the narrator is saved in extremis by unconditional love. A late chapter, entitled “Adulthood”, closes in true coming-of-age fashion: “And I know now, I need to grow up”. This is indeed a Bildungsroman but it is also a Künstlerroman — a portrait of the artist as a young junkie. O’Neill never mentions his first novel, which he wrote while on the methadone programme described here, but its composition haunts the book like a character in search of an author.

3061739368_b78c354b49

New York Review of Books

409692229_e75d124f7c_t

Here is the picture I took of Tom McCarthy at the Palais de Tokyo (Paris) back in February 2007 which now appears in the special anniversary issue of The New York Review of Books (celebrating 45 years in print). It features on the second page (p. 90) of Zadie Smith’s in-depth article on Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and McCarthy’s Remainder.

Zadie Smith, “Two Paths For the Novel,” The New York Review of Books (volume 55, number 18) 20 November 2008: 89-94.

392173592_d1eb09c8f6

All the Latest

409692229_e75d124f7c_t

On 5 November, as the first results of the American presidential election were about to come in, I took part — with Gerry Feehily — in a radio programme called Minuit/Dix on France Culture. We talked about the Offbeat literary movement. This is how the programme was presented:

“Animé par un esprit punk, la génération Offbeat est un mouvement littéraire né en réaction à la commercialisation du monde de l’édition aux Etats Unis et, surtout, en Grande-Bretagne. Gerry Feehily, romancier Offbeat vivant à Paris, et Andrew Gallix, auteur d’une anthologie d’écrivains Offbeat, évoqueront les enjeux de ce nouveau courant. De son côté, Christophe a longtemps écouté Etienne Daho pour nous parler aujourd’hui de sa biographie Une Histoire d’Etienne Daho (Flammarion). Un live, enfin, avec le retour d’Arnold Turboust.”

Listen here.

minuitdix

3012092927_09dac06d5c